Copyright 2009 by Seth Chambers
I've attached a relatively recent tale of mine which is about a Chicago bike messenger and her aunt, who is dying of cancer. I spent the past four years working as a bike messenger, and have also worked in the health care field with terminal patients, so this story is quite close to my heart. I hope you enjoy it.
We gather in front of the Thompson Center, we messengers, rolling in on racing machines, mountain bikes, and beaters pieced together in garages and basements. The elite among us ride fixed-gear bikes – fixies – with no brakes. I ride a fixie but, chickenshit that I am, still cling to a front brake. Just in case. A brakeless bike is cool but the cool don’t always survive on these streets. My fixie has a name: Pink.
I swoop in under the concrete overhang, hand raised for high-fives.
“Sonya, a good morning to you.”
This from Jazz Man, biker number seven over at Cannonball. Low number, been on the scene forever.
We slap palms. Jazz Man wears fingerless gloves while my own hands freeze within huge mitts. Frost clings to his short, curly beard. The Jazz Man rides a vintage steel Raleigh with a big, wire basket strapped to the handlebars with strips of leather. His machine, like himself, is built for heavy loads and the long haul – not speed. The Jazz Man is beyond elite. The Jazz Man is legend.
“And how is Edie doing these days?”
Edie being my aunt.
“Hangin’ in there.”
“She get a wig yet?”
“Naw. Still looking for just the right one.”
“Chemo’s tough. You tell her the Jazz Man pray for her.”
My radio, clipped to the shoulder strap of my messenger bag, chirps. “Nine eight one, you awake girly girl?”
Julio on dispatch today, which means constant banter. A great way to start out, but by afternoon it’ll be getting old.
I key the mike.
“Yawn, yawn, whatcha got?”
“Hate to wake you, love, but I got a three-eleven Whack heading for the Cock. You up for it?”
West Wacker to the Hancock.
“Is that all? It’s hardly worth getting outa my jammies for.”
“Well, seeing as you’re feeling ambitious, go and grab the Fairbanks run.”
I give him a ten-four as I crank some tight circles. After a good wind-up, I weave through a few peds and hit Randolph at warp speed. Another call comes in and I key the mike and answer without slowing. It’s all about flow, now, just keep moving. I glide to a halt by a bike rack, dismount, and whip the chain and lock from around my waist, all in a single fluid motion. Within moments I’m inside the three-eleven and sprinting for the elevators before security can snag me and demand I.D. A few seconds saved. Flow.
By the time I exit the three-eleven with package on board, I’m overheated. The chill air feels good. I unlock the bike, whip the chain around my waist, and stomp the pedals. Now it seems strange to see people walking all hunched and bunched against the cold. In my head I know it’s frigid out, but now that I’ve warmed up it feels like summer. Why’s everyone so cold?
I stand on the pedals, rocketing east on Wacker. Slow for the red light, do a tight circle, spot an opening and speed off again, legs pumping like pistons. I feel superhuman. I love this job. Later, I will probably decide I hate it. I go back and forth between loving it and hating it several times a day.
I swoop the corners and dart between trucks. It won’t be till night that it catches up to me, when I’m drifting off to sleep and some image – a car door opening or a Yellow Cab veering – looms in my mind’s eye and I spasm awake. But for now, I am supremely confident, almost daring The Loop to throw me its worst.
I grab more orders. My bag fills with envelopes and odd little packages. Julio and I banter on the radio. I sweat and have to unzip my jacket to let in cool air. Worst thing you can do is sweat too much. I see other bikers, but mostly in passing. Jerry, with Standard Courier. Enigma on his sleek, silver Felt. Nikki toting her bag with a pastel T-Rex munching a car. Jazz Man pedals down Wabash, his basket filled with boxes. We nod at one another, or raise a couple fingers from the handlebars. A lot is said with these miniscule gestures: stay safe; I’m here for ya; are we crazy or what?
Early afternoon I get stuck at a freight elevator on LaSalle, the bane of the messenger’s existence. A lot of places, they don’t let us go through the front, we gotta duck around back, check in with security, and scurry through a rat maze to the freight elevator. I stare at the number lights: 47… 46… Fumble with my clipboard. This thing’s going to take forever. Julio really will think I’ve fallen asleep.
My cell phone rings. I throw off my bag, dig through it, find the phone. It’s my Aunt Edie. My finger hovers over the answer button for several seconds as it rings, rings. Today is Monday, so it’s my turn to sit with her through the night. It’s also the day she goes in for chemotherapy. The phone stops ringing and I toss it back in the bag and close the flap. A couple maintenance men are standing nearby. I’m sweating and itching in all my winter clothes and just where is that damn elevator?
The elevator arrives and, from within my bag, my phone makes those little beeps that let me know a message has been left. I step in the elevator and scooch to a corner as men bring on ladders and carts and tools. I’m going to 27. The car descends to the basement before going up. I want to get my phone but now my hands are full with hat and mittens and clipboard and pen.
Eventually, I make it out of the LaSalle building but my momentum, my flow, has disappeared. The cold bites again as sweat freezes to my body. It feels like I just spent half the day in that damn building. I’m disoriented and have to remind myself repeatedly of where I’m headed next. Pink feels sluggish. I almost hit a pedestrian. I forgot to check my phone message but no time now, no time. I really hate this job.
I tough it out and, little by little, warm back up. In a lobby on Dearborn I grab my phone and call voicemail. The only message my aunt left was about seven seconds of silence. I hang up and everything feels off kilter. I don’t delete the message.
Orders stop coming in; I concentrate on delivering. My bag empties. The Loop starts to close down and pedestrians cross the streets in random patterns. Pink and I have to weave and dodge like crazy. It suddenly occurs to me it’s almost dark. I drop my last package, say nighty-night to Julio, jump on the Lake Shore trail, and head north. Once on the trail, I can pull out the stops and just fly. No traffic, no intersections, no red lights.
I want to keep riding and never stop, but instead exit the trail and blast through Boys Town, reaching Edie’s apartment building in no time. Downstairs, I press the buzzer and think about the seven seconds of silence on my voicemail and what it could mean.
“It’s me, Auntie.”
She buzzes me up. I heft Pink onto one shoulder and hoof it to the third floor. I have a key and let myself in, stashing Pink in the utility room at the entry. Helmet, hat and mittens go in a milk crate by the door. I kick off my shoes, stick my cell phone in the charger, toss off my jacket, peel off my wet socks and toss them on a box.
From around the corner, I see Edie sitting up in bed. The television is on, the sound turned down. A couple GET WELL SOON balloons lie here and there, their lift long gone. I stall in the utility closet as long as possible before stepping into the main room.
We go through our rituals: I ask how she’s doing, she says she’s hanging in, we make small talk, I take her hand in mine. I want to leave and I hate myself for this. She tells me to have a seat and suddenly my adrenaline runs out, exhaustion hits, and I drop like a bag of cement onto the recliner across from the bed.
It’s always the smells that get me. Nobody ever mentions them, of course. Rotting flesh, puss and I swear I can smell the chemicals they pump into her. Metals. Edie is surrounded by books, magazines, food wrappers, water bottles, Kleenex. Her back rests against one of those pillows people use for sitting up. A husband pillow, I think it’s called. Knitted afghans are scattered about. It must be some law that sick people gotta have these horrid things in their homes. Edie’s bald head somehow reminds me of an alien. She looks impossibly small and her gaze shifts idly about and it becomes harder and harder to recall the person she used to be.
“You don’t have to stay here,” she says, but this is just another part of our ritual and I follow my script and tell her I want to stay. I can’t help but glance toward the utility room at Pink’s front wheel, dripping mud onto the floor.
Edie has no food preference whatsoever. Pizza, Chinese, burritos, Thai, it’s all the same to her. I order from Yeng Ching. General Tsao’s chicken for me, Kung Pao for Edie, and egg drop soup for us both. At the last second I order crab rangoons. I stay on the phone as long as possible.
When the food arrives, Edie pokes at the rice, nibbles a rangoon. I devour everything else, my body absorbing every iota of protein and carbohydrate it can get. Edie turns the volume up on the television and the evening crawls by. At ten, I shut off the lights and slip into the bathroom for a shower. I have clothes stashed here. After my shower, I slip into some sweats and return to the recliner and lean back.
Sometime during the night my skin starts to itch. One of those nasty afghans is draped over me and I throw it off. I never really sleep at Edie’s, at least not deep. Sometimes she’ll say my name and my eyes will open and next thing we’re having a conversation. Or I’ll say something first.
It’s like that now. Dozing, I remember those seven seconds of silence she left on my voice mail. “You called,” I say. “Earlier.”
Edie turns her head. There’s a rustling in the folds of the sheets. It’s her hand trying to push its way out. It emerges from the covers. I force myself to keep from pulling my own hand away when she reaches over for it. It’s like an alien thing. Edie opens her eyes.
“You needn’t come by after today.”
I start to mouth my usual lines – it’s okay, I like coming here – when she cuts me off.
“Sonja. No. Don’t come back.”
Even as she gasps for breath, her voice has a sharp edge to it that stops me cold. The hand retreats back under the covers. Before long, she drifts off but my pulse is pounding.
I sit up in the recliner. Stand. Take a step. Stop. Another step. Eventually, I make it to the utility room where Pink is stashed. The poor girl is covered with road salt. My aunt has a bunch of old-lady tools: needle nose pliers, an ancient Crescent wrench, some cheap screwdrivers, and a bunch of wrenches with English sizing: half inch, three eighths, nine sixteenths.
Some years ago, I dyed my hair a bunch of funky colors. Then one day I looked in a mirror and couldn’t wait to shave my head. That’s how I’m feeling now about that damn front brake. It looks like a tumor and I want it off Pink. I peel the handlebar tape and grab those silly pliers. It takes awhile but I’m determined. I get the lever off first, then go after the brake itself. When the operation is complete, I rewrap the handlebars.
I let the brake, cable and lever fall to the floor. It’s ugly. But Pink has never been sleeker. All smooth lines, no extra parts, more poem than machine. I step into the kitchen. The microwave clock tells me it’s 4:20am. I want it to be later. I think about what my life will be like now, riding with no brakes, always seeking ways around and through traffic, weaving and dodging and veering, my senses fixed on high alert. I start to shake. The stench of flesh and metal has found me again. My throat starts to close up. I glance over at Edie on the bed, sipping in teaspoons of breath. I feel lean and tough and oh-so-ashamed.
I run my hands over Pink, pick her up. She’s
light and strong. I’ve never wanted to ride so bad in my life.
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